Twenty-nine years ago this week, Philadelphia’s Black mayor ordered the city to bomb its own citizens. MOVE, a black liberation group in Philadelphia, had had other confrontations with Philadelphia police, but this one ended in tragedy for a whole neighborhood.
MOVE was launched in 1972 by John Africa, a dreadlocked messiah figure whose followers also locked their hair and took “Africa” as a last name. When the group moved to the Cobbs Creek area of West Philadelphia, they annoyed and harassed their neighbors with late-night bullhorn rants and the condition of their home, which included a bunker built on the roof.
Though MOVE advocated a back to nature philosophy and eschewed materialism and technology, their neighbors in the middle-class area of the city simply wanted peace and quiet and asked city officials to evict them.
On May 13, 1985, police raided the group’s home after several members were indicted for various crimes. The raid led to an armed standoff that came to a violent end when a state police helicopter dropped two bombs on the house, killing John Africa and ten others, including five children. Ramona Africa and 9-year-old Birdie Africa were the only survivors of the ensuing fire that destroyed 61 homes; none of them affiliated with Move.
Firefighters delayed fighting the blaze fearing the armed group, who exchanged fire with police before the bomb was dropped, would target them. The MOVE bombing came to represent the worst aspects of racism as a bomb was dropped on a Black neighborhood with little thought of the consequences.
The city eventually paid a million-dollar settlement to MOVE survivors. In a sad postscript to the tragedy, the city rebuilt homes destroyed in the bombing only to fall victim to a shoddy contractor. Most of the homeowners on the destroyed blocks ultimately took the city’s offer to sell and left the block.
Birdie Africa, who after surviving the bombing was known as Michael Moses, died last year at age 41 in an accidental drowning in a hot tub on a cruise ship.